By Gregory Clark, illustrated by James Frise, August 24, 1946.
“Well,” sighed Jimmie Frise, “summer is practically over.”
“The heck it is,” I protested indignantly. “We’ve got all September and …”
“September isn’t summer,” declared Jim bleakly. “September is autumn.”
“After the 21st,” I insisted firmly. “We’ve got nearly another month of summer. Don’t make it seem any shorter than it is.”
“It isn’t me that makes summer seem short,” said Jim doggedly. “It IS short. In Canada, we don’t get two months of summer.”
“Jim, you’re very ungrateful. Think,” I reminded, “if we lived in a country like Bermuda. Summer all the time!”
“Oh, boy!” gloated Jim.
“But no contrasts,” I warned. “No feeling of appreciation. Every day the same, year in, year out. Summer, summer, summer.”
“It would suit me,” declared Jim.
“I’d die,” I submitted, “of sheer boredom. What I love about Canada is its versatility. When you go to bed in Canada, you haven’t the vaguest idea what kind of a day it’s going to be tomorrow. Man, that’s adventure. That adds zest.”
“One thing I know,” asserted Jim somberly. “In about two months, it’s going to be cold and bleak and the leaves are going to be tumbling ahead of the wind on the ground …”
“What a thought on a day like this!” I snorted, looking out from the cottage veranda over the keen, sparkling water.
It was one of those rarest days of summer in Canada. A hale west wind blowing. A fine mid-August westerly. All the trees in the full health of leaf and bough, bending in the wind and making a strong clear rushing sound. By mid-August, the tree foliage is leathery and tough and made to bathe in these fine tangy winds from the west.
“Do you realize, Jim,” I demanded, “that this week and next are the two finest bass fishing weeks of the whole year?”
“I don’t recall any famous catches at this season,” said Jim.
“The records prove it,” I stated. “For 30 years, The Toronto Star maintained a prize contest for the biggest black bass. And with few exceptions across those 30 years, the winners were caught in the latter part of August. The six-and-a-half-pounders, the seven-pounders.”
“Coincidence,” suggested Jimmie.
“Not a chance,” I corrected. “It stands to reason, Jim. Big bass are big because they have been successful in escaping death at the hands of anglers. Big bass are big because they are wily and cunning. In July, when the season first opens, the weather is mild and fine. A smart bass can detect the approach of the fisherman’s boat 100 yards off. The weeds are young and easily seen through. The big bass may be hungry, but he knows he has all summer ahead of him to feed up. So he uses judgment and tact in selecting his food. He doesn’t grab hold of the first bait that passes him, as younger fish do. So he grows big and old and wise.”
Bass Goes a-Hunting
“And how,” inquired Jim, “does he fall for it in late August?”
“This hale west wind,” I pursued, “suggests to the bass what it suggested to you a few minutes ago. It suggests that summer is blowing to its end. That autumn is coming. And the big bass, remembering other years, decides it is about time he started feeding up against the lean months.”
“I can follow that,” agreed Jim.
“Yes, sir,” I went on. “So the big bass leaves his hiding place beneath sunken log or behind rocky shelf, and under the influence of this fine wind, beating the water into a turmoil, he goes ahunting. He grows a little careless, as all men do when urgent need drives them. He comes along these wind-beaten shores, stuffing himself with minnows dazed by the waves, gorging on his favorite food, the crawfish, which have been washed from under the rocks by the continued pounding of the waves. There are fine pickings along the shores these days for a big bass with an eye to economy of movement.”
“It’s sort of harvest home for the bass, too.” suggested Jim.
“I,” I submitted, “could do with a real feast of bass. We will skin them, fillet them, and fry the fillets in an iron frying pan on a good hot stove.”
“With chopped parsley right on them as they fry,” contributed Jim.
“And no vegetables,” I menued, “but plenty of toast, some slightly bitter leaf lettuce – not that awful, watery, head lettuce! …”
“And,” rounded off Jim, sitting up smartly, “a large plate of cold, ripe, sliced tomatoes!”
“Ah, that’s better,” I exclaimed, as Jim got to his feet full of resolve. “That’s more Augusty. I hate to see a man gloomy in August.”
“Have you any suggestions as to where we’ll fish?” asked Jim alertly, facing the wind and catching a big lungful.
“Any place,” I suggested.
“No, sir. I’ve got an idea,” said Jim. “You know that old settler up the road? Old man Mose, the kids call him?”
“Certainly: an old acquaintance of mine,” I stated. “Name of Colquhoun.”
“Colquhoun, is it?” said Jim. “Well, I saw him on the road a couple of days ago, and I said to myself-there’s an old guy knows every nook and cranny of this country like a book.”
“He does,” I admitted cautiously. “He does. But in the 40 years I’ve known him – and he was always old -he never imparted any of his knowledge to me. Or to anybody else in the summer resort, as far as I can find out.”
“A hermit, is he?” asked Jim.
“Well, no, not a hermit, exactly,” I explained. “A hermit is usually a little queer, maybe religious, maybe shy. Old man Mose, as the kids all call him for the past half century, isn’t queer, isn’t religious, isn’t shy. The way I heard it, he made an unfortunate marriage when he was a young man and simply ran away and hid up in this neck of the woods. He built a cabin, intending to live by trapping and poaching. It was when we summer resorters came along and found this heavenly spot that old Colquhoun took a scunner against us. He hasn’t spoken to any of us within my memory.”
“By golly, that’s true,” said Jim. “I greeted him the other day and he never let on. I thought he was deaf.”
“Nothing deaf about him,” I assured. “He Just doesn’t like tourists. He hates summer cottagers. They’ve ruined his trapping and poaching.”
“Well, I guess there’s no chance of getting him to tip us off to some secret, choice bass fishing spot,” surmised Jim.
“He’s a mean old cuss,” I certified. “He’s tight as wax. I doubt if he’s ever given anybody – even the other settlers around – so much as nail in his life. He’s famous for his meanness.”
“Rather an interesting old cuss,” mused Jimmie. “I like mean old characters. There’s always something curious and attractive about them. When you get to know them, you find the secret of their meanness, and it’s fascinating to discover how gnarled and twisted, and knotty and grainy human nature can become over some trifling little thing…”
“But not old man Mose,” I chuckled. “He’s just plain cussed.”
“Did you ever try to get acquainted with him?” demanded Jim.
“When I was a young man up here,” I recounted, “I went a long way out of my way to try to cultivate the old skinflint. But no use. He was laid up with flu one summer and I took him a whole carton of supplies–bacon, jelly, oranges, bread … He not only didn’t so much as say thanks, he just lay in bed, behind his beard, and studied me with shrewd, mocking, suspicious eyes. I tried to sit down and have a bedside chat. He pretended to have a bad coughing spell and then shut his eyes. I left.”
“Well,” cried Jim, “maybe the poor guy was sick. You don’t base your opinion on…”
“Oh, no,” I assured. “For the next two years, every time he saw me on the road he’d dart into the bushes to avoid me. Finally, I asked one of the other settlers what old Colquhoun had against me. And he told me the old boy was expecting me to hand him a bill for the groceries I brought him while he was ill.”
“No!” said Jim.
“He just can’t believe anybody is good-hearted,” I explained. “I have hundreds of examples. He’s quite a character.”
Bearding the Lion
“I’m going to pay him a visit,” said Jim with determination.
“Select some day when you have nothing better to do,” I suggested. “Let’s go bass fishing today.”
“I’m betting.” declared Jim, tightening his belt, “that that old character knows every bass hole in this country for miles around. And if he has never told anybody where they are – imagine the bass that’ll be in them!”
“You’re wasting your time,” I said.
“It’s only 15 minutes up this road to his shanty,” Jim calculated. “The walk would do us some good. I’ll be back in half an hour with old Colquhoun.”
“Yes, you will,” I laughed.
As I had a new line to put on my bass reel and one or two other little odd jobs, I went down to the boathouse while Jim headed up the rocky backwoods road around the end of the lake where old Colquhoun’s cabin occupied, by long odds, the finest point for a cottage in the whole countryside.
And you can imagine my astonishment, when I looked up from finishing reeling on my new line, to see, coming down the road together in full stride, Jimmie and old Colquhoun, in hearty converse.
Jim brought the old boy down to the boathouse and introduced us, neighbors for 40 years, man and boy, us if I were a newcomer to the district. Old Colquhoun looked at me with kindly interest as if he had never laid eyes on me before in his life. He shook hands firmly.
“Mr. Colquhoun,” announced Jimmie beaming, “knows a bass lake less than five miles from here that he says is simply teeming with great big five and six-pounders…”
“Where’s that?” I asked narrowly.
“Oh, it’s a little secret of me own,” said Mr. Colquhoun hoarsely but jovially. “A little secret I’ve had these past 50 years. Never a tourist into it.”
“In which direction?” I inquired cautiously. “I know most of the lakes within five miles.”
“No tourist would ever find it,” confided Mr. Colquhoun. “We can get there in your car. The road ain’t so good. But it ain’t so bad. A nice little light car like yours…”
“You mean my open job?” I asked sharply. “Why not take your car, Jim? A light car isn’t as good as a heavy car on these backwoods roads …”
“A heavy car,” put in Mr. Colquhoun, “would sink in the bog.”
“Any car,” I stated suspiciously, “would sink in the bog.”
“Oh, it ain’t that bad,” said Mr. Colquhoun. “Take whatever car you like. But all I say is, be prepared to have to pry her out of holes here and there…”
“Jim,” I cut in sharply. “We don’t have to go to any remote neck of the woods for some bass. We can get a feed of bass by taking the rowboat right out in front here…”
“Six-pounders,” announced Mr. Colquhoun “Seven-pounders even.”
“Well, I’m certainly going,” declared Jimmie. “I’m not going to pass up a chance of a lifetime…”
“I wouldn’t of tipped you off,” explained Mr. Colquhoun, “exceptin’ I am getting old. No use keepin’ secrets to the grave, is there?”
I looked at him steadily. He looked back at me, and if ever I saw just plain malignance in a human gaze, there it was. Flickering.
“I’ll go in my car, if you don’t want to come,” said Jim.
“I’ll come,” I said gloomily.
And we went in the cottage, leaving Mr. Colquhoun outside, to get our gear for the trip.
Tackling the Backwoods
“What did you do to the old bird?” I inquired of Jim inside. “Give him some kind of a sulpha pill or something? Maybe one of these new penicillin lozenges…?”
“As usual,” stated Jim, “your prejudices, acquired in early youth, have been robbing you all the rest of your life. I found him a decent, gnarled old boy. He was sitting thinking on his front step when I walked up. I asked him, matter of fact, if he could tell me of any good bass fishing off the beaten track…”
Well, wonders will never cease, I find.
So we got in MY car, the open job, with old Colquhoun in the back seat directing us. We drove up the road past his place, and on another couple of miles of very poor backwoods road, over rock and through deep pitch holes and around bald boulders. Then we turned off into what was nothing but a bare track over the waste places.
“Can’t we walk from here?” I protested.
“It’s another good two miles,” said Colquhoun, “and you’ll find it good going in a minute.”
It was never good going. It was awful going. The track disappeared for 100 yards at a stretch. Some ancient tote road of lumbering days, possibly. We wound through woods, we rode over bald rocky hills and we stumbled through swamps where vestiges of corduroy road still persisted. In all my years up in this country. I had never come across this trail before.
“This lake,” said old Colquhoun, “has got eight-pounders in it. I’ll be bound. But I never had the proper tackle to tackle them.”
He said this just as we reached the worst possible spot we had imagined. It was an old burn around swamp. You could see water in the swamps. But eight-pound bass are something to break world records with. I crawled ahead in low gear …
The corduroy collapsed. I could feel my back wheels spinning in muskeg.
Old Colquhoun jumped out of the car and ran up the hill, looking. I supposed, for a rail or something to pry me up.
Jim got out and took a length of dead tree in hand.
And then we heard old Colquhoun whooping.
“Here she is!” he exulted. “Just where I left her last fall.”
And he was waving an axe around in circles cutting capers of glee.
“Right where I left her!” he yelled, “Nobody found her. Nobody touched her. Exactly where I knowed I left her, in a stump…”
And he came bow-legging it down to the car, cuddling the axe in his arms.
“Boy!” he breathed deeply, as he laid the axe in the back seat, “is that ever a relief!”
“How far is the lake from here?” I demanded coldly.
Old Colquhoun scratched the back of his head, pushing his hat forward to do so. He studied the muskeg around. He gazed a little this way, a little that.
“Well, sir, I figger,” he said, “we’ll be there in another two miles, maybe two and a half …”
“And does the road stay like this?” I snorted angrily.
“I’m afraid the road,” said old Colquhoun, “don’t go any further than here. My memory kind of played me false…”
“You told me,” accused Jim, “that it was not half a mile off the road past your place. We’ve come four miles …”
“Distances,” stated old Colquhoun, “are very deceivin! You’ll find that out more as you grow older.”
“Can we walk from here?” demanded Jim.
“My walkin’ days are pretty well over,” said old Colquhoun “I could give you the directions and wait here…”
But something about the old man’s expression – out of the SIDES of his eyes, as it were – decided us to use what time and energy we had left in getting out of the swamp.
Which we did, with rampikes, rails, pieces of stump, stones and my jack. My car is at least two years older, in wear and tear.
But old Colquhoun has his axe. And Jimmie has one thing less to discover about old well-established skinflints.
Editor’s Notes: “Menued” is an odd word, but basically means providing a menu.
“Old Man Mose” was a song written by Louis Armstrong in 1935, and re-recorded by many artists.
“Took a scunner against us” means “took a strong dislike to us”.
Sulfa Pills was a generic name for anti-bacterial drugs.
A corduroy road was used in pioneer times by placing logs, perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area.
“Cutting capers of glee” means “doing a happy dance”.
A “rampike” is an upright, dead tree.